Philadelphia water billing system finally completed

Australian software is driving the US city's metering

When Michael Nutter was sworn in as Philadelphia's new mayor on January 7, he and the City of Brotherly Love had a new, functional water billing system in place.

The initiative, known as Project Ocean, had become a high-priced mess for the city in recent years, resulting in costs approaching US$47 million (NZ$62 million) over two decades, according to the city's controller, in a report issued in August.

However, the final phase, with new off-the-shelf billing software from Australian vendor Prophecy International, was finished and operating a month ahead of schedule. It was complete by January 2 at 25% less than budgeted, according to city CIO Terry Phillis and Prophecy.

The final phase took 12 months to complete instead of the projected 13 months, and cost US$5.7 million, down from the US$6.7 million budgeted, Phillis says. The goal of finishing before outgoing Mayor John Street left office was met, he noted.

More than 550,000 water customers in the city will not see much of a change in their bills, except that the bills will be more accurate, and the system itself will be more flexible. The US$1 million in savings will be used in a subsequent project to set up customer self-service water and sewer billing via the web, Phillis says.

The new system, built with Prophecy's Basis2 software by a city-led integration team, replaces a 30-year-old custom-built Cobol mainframe billing system that had relied in part on punch cards. With the new system, Phillis says the city will be able to change the billing process quickly, perhaps in days compared with up to a year with Cobol programming.

With the new system, the city can make changes to billing, such as deciding to add fees for storm-water drainage or allowing customers to include features that help them track their efforts to conserve water, Phillis says.

"Converting this thing over was a huge effort," he says. "We had to deal with 30 years of garbage data in the old system."

Phillis and the city chose Prophecy a year ago after deciding to scrap most of the Oracle applications that were originally chosen. Phillis helped implement a team of managers from three city agencies to oversee the project and put himself in charge of the integration effort, working with contract workers and city agencies.

Project Ocean started in 2002 with Oracle on board, but work was stopped in October 2005 after the city spent US$18.9 million, twice what it expected. The city signed an amendment to Oracle's contract in which Oracle agreed to pay or forgive US$6.9 million of those costs to fund the revived Project Ocean.

The amendment with Oracle went forward, representing a US$6.9 million savings. With that savings included, and the US$5.7 million incurred in the past year, the total cost since 2002 is US$19.7 million. The final phase of costs is still less than half what the billing industry estimates a similar billing system should cost, Phillis and Prophecy say.

Phillis says the city controller's estimate of nearly US$47 million includes many years of costs for changing the system prior to 2002.

Phillis says the biggest lesson he's learned from the experience is that "technology is not the prime concern in being successful in a project of this size." Instead, he says, success is a matter of "process, collaboration and leadership", although it is obvious that "the technology has to work and it has to match your skill sets", he says.

A year ago, he says, "we had to spend a lot of time upfront deciding how to run this and how to collaborate between three departments".

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Tags managementOracleProphecy Internationalproject oceanphiladelphia

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